Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948–May 1949

  • Published

Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948–May 1949 by Richard Reeves. Simon and Schuster, 2010, 336 pp.

In his well-chosen title, Richard Reeves clearly lays out his purpose of revealing the bravery and achievement of a military operation often misunderstood or overlooked by Americans today. He explains in the introduction that studies of the post–World War II period sometimes paid little, if any, attention to the Berlin airlift and that students regularly confused it with later Cold War hostilities taking place after the official division of Germany (p. xv). With the publication of Daring Young Men, Reeves seeks to correct this oversight, and although it is certainly not the first study on the subject (Andrei Cherny’s The Candy Bombers, more than twice as long, appeared almost two years earlier), this work makes an important contribution to the history of the airlift.

Electing to remain within the time frame of the airlift itself, Reeves opens the first chapter on 20 June 1948, mere days before the beginning of the Soviet blockade (p. 1), and closes the final chapter on 12 May 1949, the day the blockade officially ended (p. 259). After he introduces the Soviet blockade decision by reproducing media coverage of the event, the author then provides background on the impetus for such a decision—namely, currency reform by the West (p. 14). From there, the work proceeds chronologically, each chapter covering roughly one month of the operation. This design proves remarkably easy to follow, even for readers having little familiarity with the airlift. In chapter 3, the author carefully chronicles the beginnings of the effort, calling its first month a “cowboy adventure,” both “heroic and frantic” under Gen Joseph Smith, provisional task force commander of the airlift (pp. 71, 67). To demonstrate the truth of these claims, Reeves shares stories of pilots desperately overworked, sleeping only seven hours out of every 32 and often falling asleep at the controls of their planes (p. 70). He tells of Airmen purposefully breaking their legs by jumping out of low windows just to be sent home for rest and of mismatched airplanes parked haphazardly across the airfields, without regard for any schedule and in dire need of maintenance (p. 82).

Reeves notes how the operation changed and began to function like a well-oiled machine. He places the turning point at 23 July, one month after initiation of the blockade, when Gen Hoyt Vandenberg, Air Force chief of staff, was persuaded to give control of the airlift to Maj Gen William Tunner, the ruthlessly efficient deputy commander for operations of the Military Air Transport Service (p. 71). Less than three days after his arrival in Germany, Tunner demanded changes in the procedures for crews unloading at the Berlin airports of Tempelhof and Gatow (p. 83). Carefully monitoring their efficiency on his beloved charts, the general constantly strove to increase tonnage into Berlin by promoting contests between squadrons and airfields and staging massive one-day efforts to rally his aircrews (p. 105).

According to Reeves, Tunner’s unique management style and innovations demanded by the extreme requirements of the airlift fundamentally changed aviation forever (p. 184). After Tunner’s plane became stuck in a nightmarish stack, number 28 in line to land at Tempelhof, he locked his pilot and copilot in a hotel room, charging them with creating entirely new approach procedures that would enable landings at Tempelhof once every minute (p. 103). Crews devised strategies to reduce their time on the ground from hours to mere minutes and made recommendations for civilian airlines, such as inclusion of a flight engineer, standardization of instrument panel locations, and use of three initial level-off altitudes to increase takeoff frequency and horizontal separation (p. 184).

The limited time frame of this study contributes greatly to its readability, and the thorough epilogue will appeal to individuals hoping for a where-are-they-now conclusion. By highlighting the months of the airlift, Reeves is able to offer greater detail regarding the day-to-day operations and experiences of people involved in the operation. Instead of examining the event through the perspective of one particular group, the author rotates each participant into the spotlight, quoting everyone from President Harry Truman and his joint chiefs (p. 77) to the hungry children of Berlin who caught flying candy tied to handkerchief parachutes (p. 90).

During his preparation for writing this book, Reeves gathered extensive archival material, conducted interviews with some of the participants, and examined a host of secondary sources. This research is well documented in the endnotes and bibliography; however, the note style is somewhat more difficult to access than that found in traditional monographs and may frustrate academic historians anxious for documentation of specific quotations and claims.

Overall, Daring Young Men is an easy read, even for someone with limited knowledge of its subject. Reeves’s discussions of the innovations in air traffic management and aircraft maintenance serve as an excellent history lesson for Airmen in those career fields. His analysis of the effectiveness of Air Force leadership strategies earned the book a place in the Air Force chief of staff’s professional reading program for 2010. Additionally, Reeves’s explanation of the Berlin airlift as an outline for the Cold War and the key to the formation of modern Europe makes this book an important read for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of military and political history.

Amanda B. Biles, MA

Bossier City, Louisiana

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."